“I’m old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread. I need a holiday. A very long holiday. And I don’t expect I shall return. In fact I mean not to.” -Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring
I just got back from a friend’s apartment with some others from our church. Our friend, who is older, wasn’t there. He is at the hospital, and is in rather poor health. He has decided that even if things go well at the hospital, and he comes back out, he intends not to return to his current apartment. He is not able to care for himself there as he would like and needs something more of an “assisted living” facility.
As we were packing his things, cleaning out the trash and saving what was needed, I was reminded again of the importance of safety nets in our functioning as a society. Here I don’t necessarily mean government-run safety nets (those who know me, know that I think governments generally do a poor job of managing such things). Instead I’m referring to those institutions in the lives of men that provide an underpinning for our times of need.
There are quite a few that we could point to. Marriage is obvious – who else has taken an oath to be with you for better or worse? Then there are parent-child relationships. You can generally count on parents to shoulder every burden imaginable to help their children. In later years we hope see the operation in reverse, as children care for aging parents. You can count on neighbors and friends to help in time of trouble. You can count on church or other social groups to come to your aid when you are most in need.
These institutions come with a price though. You must choose to be a member (with the obvious exception of children – who don’t actually get to choose their parents). In choosing to be a member you must agree to act in some sort of civil fashion towards others in the group. Selfishness is moderated by a willing commitment to the whole. (The word willing is key here.)
For millennia these structures have provided a much-needed mechanism for men to share burdens across societal groups. The strong can aid the weak – who will one day be strong (or in days past have been strong). The value of a human life is taken as greater than his ability at this time or that to contribute to the current productive output of the whole. The value is inherent, recognized by the group as coming from a higher source. We cannot turn our backs on the weak in these settings, for we may find ourselves in the same predicament in the not-to-distant future.
Not all philosophies ascribe to such institutions though. Some philosophies have pushed quite hard, even if indirectly, toward the elimination of these institutions in our social structure. Over the past half-century we have seen dramatic rise in divorce, shattering the marriage bonds. (The whole concept of marriage has become nearly laughable in some socialist European settings.) Has it been the Christians who pushed in this direction? No – even though a number have been caught up in it (our divorce rate isn’t much better than the rest of the country).
Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, idealized a society in which men and women would procreate and then relinquish the children to the state to be raised, while they both went back to work. This effectively eliminates the parent-child relationship as a social structure. Obviously we haven’t gone to that extreme – but we have certainly made some strides in that direction.
Further, we are continually bombarded with the notion that the government is the responsible party for our ultimate safety net, instead of church or community.
Now, it is not my intent to condemn those people who have experienced these difficulties. These philosophies have infected the culture and certainly crept into the church. In the end, we’re all just trying to “put it together” in the odd societal operations of the day in which we live. My intent rather is to point out that these philosophies are not consistent with historical operation of societies, and further that they are not consistent with Biblical functioning. We believe that the family relationships and the Church are God-given, and that performing burden-sharing functions is part of their mandate in our lives.
Philosophies that drive us to government-run solutions are leading us in a dangerous direction. Unlike traditional safety nets, government-run solutions do not require a moderation of selfish behaviors. I have to speak kindly to my neighbor if I want him to help when I have a flat tire. I don’t have to speak kindly to anybody when I can use the government to confiscate their resources for my own needs. I can’t drive my children away if I want them to care for me when I’m old, or even just to come visit me in the old-folks home. But if the government is responsible for my care I can be as mean and nasty as I want to be.
Moderation of ill-temperaments is not a bad thing. Traditional social institutions have served quite well over a long time at provided the necessary support functions. Running headlong to a new Utopian dream at the expense of “what got us here” will undoubtedly lead to less “goodness” in the future. Let us hope we can turn again from where we have drifted and strengthen that which remains.